During the Revolutionary War, the British held many American prisoners-of-war on prison ships in the New York Harbor. On the ships, the quarters were crowded and the prisoners were given little food or water. Diseases like smallpox and yellow fever spread easily and over seven thousand prisoners died while on the ships.
A resident of New York, Burgin was able to help the prisoners by visiting them and bringing them food. One evening when she returned home from visiting a prison ship, an American officer asked to meet with her about a plan to help the prisoners escape. The British only allowed women on the prison ships, so the officer wanted Burgin to alert the prisoners to be ready for the escape and to help with the plan of smuggling them off the ship. Burgin complied and helped more than 200 prisoners escape over the next several weeks.
Once the British discovered they were missing prisoners they offered a two hundred pound reward for her capture. This amount was equal to twenty years of pay for a British soldier, so there was a great incentive for them to try to capture her. Burgin narrowly escaped being captured and left the area. Burgin wrote to General George Washington, asking for his help now that the British had all of her possessions.
General Washington wrote to the Continental Congress about Burgin’s role:
“Regarding Elizabeth Burgin, recently an inhabitant of New York. From the testimony of our own (escaped) officers…it would appear that she has been indefatigable for the relief of the prisoners, and for the facilitation of their escape. For this conduct she incurred the suspicion of the British, and was forced to make her escape under disturbing circumstances.” (1)
In 1781, the Continental Congress awarded Burgin with a pension for her part in helping the Patriots’ cause.